It turns out that it is not a good idea to award federal contracts on the basis of a company’s ability to attract President Donald Trump’s attention through his television set.
Tommy Fisher has received $1.7 billion in federal contracts for his Fisher Sand & Gravel construction company to build sections of wall along the U.S.-Mexico border by appealing directly to Trump in appearances on his favorite network, Fox News. But the privately funded “showcase piece” of wall that his firm constructed along the Rio Grande earlier this year is already at risk of falling down, according to a new report from ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.
The July 2 report finds that Fisher's private wall project, completed in March, “is showing signs of runoff erosion and, if it’s not fixed, could be in danger of falling into the Rio Grande, according to engineers and hydrologists who reviewed photos of the wall. … lt never should have been built so close to the river, they say.” The experts pointed to “a series of gashes and gullies at various points along the structure where rainwater runoff has scoured the sandy loam beneath the foundation,” which they said would threaten the integrity of the wall when the river rises. A company attorney denied that the erosion poses a problem.
While private funds paid for that Fisher project, taxpayers are on the hook for his next one. And the reason for that is the president makes decisions about federal policy based on all the television he watches. The would-be federal contractor used a Fox-centric PR strategy to pitch Trump directly, making at least 11 appearances on Fox News and Fox Business between January 2018 and July 2019. He used the platform to claim that his innovative methods would build the border wall faster and cheaper than his competitors.
Fisher’s PR gambit worked. While the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers determined that Fisher’s design “did not meet its requirements and lacked regulatory approvals” and that the firm’s previous work on a barrier project “came in late and over budget,” Trump nonetheless “personally and repeatedly urged” its head to give Fisher a contract, according to a May 2019 Washington Post report. Trump supported Fisher’s bid because he “had seen [Fisher] on television” -- specifically on Fox -- “advocating for his version of the barrier,” as Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND), an “ardent supporter” of Fisher’s company, which is based in his state, explained to the paper.
In December, Fisher’s firm won a $400 million border-wall construction contract from the Army Corps of Engineers. The Pentagon’s inspector general subsequently announced a review of the contract in response to a request from Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security. Thompson asked for the review, saying that Fisher's “proposals reportedly did not meet the operational requirements of U.S. Customs and Border Protection" and that there were “concerns about the possibility of inappropriate influence" on the Army Corps of Engineers.
But in May, Fisher was awarded another federal contract for wall construction, this one coming in at $1.3 billion -- “the largest border wall contract ever awarded,” according to the ProPublica/Texas Tribune report.
Fisher’s 11 Fox interviews were worth $154 million apiece to his company in federal contracts. The massive windfall will surely lead to more corporate CEOs trying to take advantage of the Trump-Fox feedback loop, shilling for their services on the network in hopes of catching the president’s eye. And taxpayers will be on the hook, whether or not the CEOs can actually do what they say they can.